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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

21 AUGUST, 2014

Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit

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“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy’s letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download; public library).

The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy’s death — a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein’s correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.

Tolstoy’s letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance — he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love — something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.

Gandhi’s introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy “one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers,” offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says … to realize the central truth of his indictment.

[…]

There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.

Tolstoy opens each “chapter” of his missive — for the letter’s length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive — by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:

The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same — whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether … the oppressors are of a different nation.

[…]

The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called “civilization.”

It’s worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy’s notion of “religious teaching” is perhaps best regarded as “spiritual direction,” for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:

In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love… The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:

This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society… The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth — that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man—this truth, in order to force a way to man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.

[…]

The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers … foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued — regardless of all that leads man forward — to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He distills this idea to one “old and simple truth”:

It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.

In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism — something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning break to down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical “stuff.” Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance — the danger of, as he puts it, “scientific superstition replacing the religious one”:

But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable… The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.

(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be “dazzled by the pomp” of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism — something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions — over clarity and rigor.)

He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance:

Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.

Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how “a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions” and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact “the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.” He writes:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence — as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.

Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that “eternal law,” Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:

What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.

When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived — not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.

But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.

To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.

Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that “in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity.” World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity’s grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned — which is why Tolstoy’s closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:

What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art — but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions — the truth that for our life one law is valid — the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.

(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than “childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities” in art in his sublime essay on the “emotional infectiousness” of art.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 — eight weeks before he took his final breath — Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:

The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts… Any employment of force is incompatible with love.

A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it’s available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore’s 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.

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25 JULY, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo & Trafalgar.' Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

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17 JULY, 2014

The Book of Trees: 800 Years of Visualizing Science, Religion, and Knowledge in Symbolic Diagrams

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How the humble tree became our most powerful visual metaphor for organizing information and distilling our understanding of the world.

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Notabilia' by Mortiz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli, and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia (2011)

A visualization of the 100 longest online discussions on Wikipedia articles up for deletion, part of the collaborative editing process that defines the encyclopedia of our time. These discussions last for at least seven days, until consensus is reached on which of a series of proposed actions (such as keep, merge, rename, or delete) should be performed on a page. Starting from a common root, this visualization maps each of the 100 articles as an individual branch, with color segments and shape determined by the sequence of 'keep' (green) and 'delete' (purple) votes. The final arch of each branch indicates the voting results, bending toward either left (keep) or to the right (delete).

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[…]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

'The Tree of Life' by Gustav Klimt (1901), one of the most reproduced oil paintings in human history

Among the legions of artists captivated by trees was the great Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly before his death, in one of his voluminous notebooks, Da Vinci worked out a mathematical formula for the relationship between the size of a tree’s trunk and that of its branches — he found that as a tree grows, the total cross-sectional area of all new branches is roughly equal to the area of the mother trunk or branch, no matter the height of the tree. Centuries later, scientific tests using computer-generated models of trees have not only found Leonardo’s formula to hold up across nearly every tree species, but also to explain trees’ remarkable resilience to wind and other external forces.

'Tree Branching' by Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1515)

Study of a tree branching. Leonardo's rule is fairly simple, stating that 'Every year when the boughs of a tree have made an end of maturing their growth, they will have made, when put together, a thickness equal to that of the main stem.'

Indeed, Leonardo’s formula touched on the very thing that makes the tree such a powerful metaphor for organizing knowledge — its natural function not merely as a static object, but also as a system of relational dynamics. Lima writes:

Our primordial, symbolic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological association to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

Anonymous, 'Yggdrasil tree' (ca. 1680)

A depiction of the world tree or cosmic ash tree, from an Icelandic manuscript containing several illustrations from Norse mythology. Yggdrasil is drawn surrounded by various animals, which live in and on it. Of particular relevance is Ratatoskr, a green squirrel on the bottom left, who, according to Norse mythology, runs up and down Yggdrasil to carry messages between the eagle, shown at the top, and the dragon, Niohöggr, who gnaws at the roots.

Kabbalistic tree of life from 'Oedipus AEgyptiaus' (1652)

Illustration by the Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition; the term translates as 'received,' in reference to teachings passed through generations or directly from God. A pivotal element of the Kabbalah wisdom is the tree of life, an image composed of a diagram of ten circles, symbolizing ten pulses, or emanations, of divine energy.

'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644)

A model of the universe that was widely accepted in the 17th century, based on the Cartesian system of vortices: large whirlpools of tenuous or ethereal matter that were thought to move the planets and their satellites by contact.

'Voronoi treemap' by Michael Balzer, (2005)

A pioneering alternative to conventional rectangular treemaps that relied on Voronoi tessellation to map hierarchies. In contrast to layout algorithms based on rectangular subdivisions, the Voronoi treemap layout algorithm was the first to generate flexible polygonal subdivisions, eliminating analogous shapes and aspect ratios, while also producing extremely alluring organic layouts.

I was delighted to see a longtime favorite among the selections — Stefanie Posavec’s brilliant Writing Without Words project, a hand-drawn visualization of the “literary organism” in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, depicting the sentences, words, and rhythm structures in the book.

'Writing Without Words' by Stefanie Posavec, (2008)

The Book of Trees is a treasure trove of visual literacy, symbolic history, and cultural insight. Complement it with this visual history of tree diagrams explaining evolution and these glorious drawings of trees from Indian mythology, then revisit Rachel Sussman’s gorgeous photographs of Earth’s oldest living trees.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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